Refugee family finds new life in regional Victoria
After decades living precariously as exiles in India, a Tibetan refugee family have found a home, a future as well as a healthy and peaceful life in regional Victoria.
Dorjee Sonam and wife Dolma have both found jobs in Mildura, in Victoria’s north-west, and their two children are on educational pathways that would have been impossible just two years ago.
The family is part of the ‘Bridge to regional employment opportunities’ project which aims to support refugee families find jobs, homes and social and educational networks in regional towns.
The Sonams spent a difficult year languishing in Melbourne unable to find work and uncertain about their future after arriving in Australia as refugees in late 2018. They came under the Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP) funded by the federal government’s Department of Social Services.
Now, after nine months in Mildura, both parents have found work at a local nursery and the warm Mallee weather has improved Dorjee’s health.
“In Mildura, we were able to get jobs without good English so it is better for us than Melbourne,” Dorjee said.
“We have bought a car and things are getting better and better. Eventually we plan to buy our own home,” he said.
“If we were still living in Melbourne we would be relying on Centrelink because it was hard for us to find work. We want to stand on our own feet, so here in Mildura we have found work and we are confident to stay here,” Dorjee said.
Son Tenzin is 16 and studying Year Ten.
“I love school and I have made friends. There are some kids who speak Hindi, which I speak, so we get together sometimes,” Tenzin said.
“I particularly like maths and eventually I would like to become a police officer. My sister and I are both doing well with our education,” he said.
Daughter Choesang has recently completed a Certificate III course in ‘Individual Support’ and hopes to study nursing in the future.
“My teacher is helping me find work in aged care or personal care but my dream is to continue studying nursing,” she said.
Dorjee and Dolma fled Tibet in 2000 because of the political and religious persecution that has been directed at the Tibetan people since the region was annexed by China in 1951.
About 150,000 Tibetans live in and around Dharamshala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. Choesang and Tenzin were both born there
In India Dorjee was able to find work, for the Tibetan Government in exile. But Choesang and Tenzin had little hope of education beyond high school because of their legal status and the high fees charged for tertiary education.
Dorjee says that his family are loving life in Mildura and the warmer weather has improved his health.
“It is a very nice and peaceful place and we have very good support. There are opportunities to work here in Mildura. And, I am not getting the coughs and colds I was getting in Melbourne because the weather is warmer here,” he said.
“We have had phone calls from Tibetan people in Melbourne asking about getting work and living in Mildura,” Dorjee said.
Choesang said her family had received great support from migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia and the local community.
“We are very happy that we have had a lot of support from AMES and from the local community,” she said.
“Laura, our coordinator from AMES always on the phone supporting us and asking how we are going,” Choesang said.
“Corey from SMECC has also been very supportive,” she said.
AMES Australia Community Engagement Coordinator Laura Wilks said that the Sonam family had wholeheartedly embraced the move to Mildura.
“Dorjee, Dolma and the children have done incredibly well and really established themselves,” Laura said.
“There was an issue at the start when the family first moved to Mildura in January. Dorjee originally started out in various fruit picking roles when they first arrived, but work was difficult to maintain and not consistent particularly when COVID-19 first hit and carpooling to work became more difficult,” she said.
“But he and Dolma were both able to find work at the Agromillora Nursery, just outside town. They were very determined to succeed, especially Dolma, and they have embraced the idea of making a home in Mildura,” Laura said.
The ‘Bridge to regional employment opportunities’ is a Try, Test and Learn Fund project – an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Social Services – supporting refugees and migrants, who have so far struggled to find work and put down roots properly, to settle in regional Victoria.
The aim of the Try, Test and Learn Fund is to generate new insights into what works to reduce long-term welfare dependence. This includes seeking new ideas from and collaborating with a diverse range of stakeholders, including the community sector, business, academia and the general public.